‘Arriving at the houses of my interviewees,’ Ysenda Maxtone Graham writes in Terms and Conditions (2016), her account of life at girls’ boarding schools between 1939 and 1979,
all ready to fire away with a question about how many Bunsen burners the school had in 1952, I was often assailed by a sharp memory to do with knickers: knickers that had to be worn over knicker linings; the difference between summer knickers and winter knickers; the humiliation of one’s knicker elastic ‘going’; the desire to conform and wear the official school knickers rather than the slightly different type one’s mother chose because she didn’t hold with going to the official uniform shop; the time someone had to write a letter of apology to the school laundry because she said she had sent her knickers to the wash but in fact that had been a white lie; knickers that only went to the wash once a week, and bloomers that only went once a fortnight. These are the memories that really stay with a person.
Terms and Conditions is made up of memories like these, creamed from conversations with former pupils at some of the staggering variety of girls’ boarding schools that once existed in Britain – in the 1930s there were 150 in Surrey alone. The book runs a gamut of extreme eccentricity up to the dawn of the duvet: ‘I decided … as soon as duvets, with their downy warmth and tog-factors, came into fashion, I would be out.’ The girls Maxtone Graham is interested in are the ones who were forced to sleep, duvet-less, with the windows open all year round, who woke to find their hot-water bottles had frozen solid in the night. The ones who can say in the voice of experience: ‘Sometimes it took a whole week for a pair of knickers to dry in winter.’ These are women with names like Bubble Carew-Pole and Charlotte Bradley-Hanford and Juliet Mount Charles. Women who can say things like ‘My parents chose Wycombe Abbey because it was the nearest girls’ boarding school to Harley Street,’ or ‘My parents chose Heathfield because none of the girls had spots.’ Or, ‘My mother went to West Heath for tea once, for someone’s confirmation, and she sent me there entirely on the strength of that nice tea.’ The schools they went to could be happy, horsey places, or they could be monstrous, lawless places: they were usually something in between, horsey but monstrous, happy but lawless. Certainly, they were rarely as advertised. When, at one school, the three-day-week in the early 1970s forced the girls into the splendid Long Room to gather cosily around a roaring fire, it was the moment, the only moment, when ‘the prospectus came true.’ At another school, called Wings, one girl found herself cooking, cleaning and, finally, teaching. When there was an inspection, she wasn’t stood down from her new duties but rather told to wear make-up so as to appear like an adult.
Wherever you were, the food was terrible:
The very same pudding – sponge-roll with red jam smeared along the surface and oozing out of both ends – was known as ‘Dead Man’s Leg’ at Wycombe Abbey, ‘Matron’s Leg’ at St Elphin’s, Darley Dale, ‘Granny’s Leg’ at Southover, and ‘Reverend Mother’s Leg’ at the Presentation Convent in Matlock. This shows how very like a varicose-veiny or actively bleeding human leg the puddings must have looked.
According to Rita Skinner, the food at Roedean was ‘one up from prison slop. They employed people to cook who didn’t like cooking and didn’t want to cook.’ At Wycombe Abbey in the 1950s they fried fish on a Friday and then reused the fat to make doughnuts, ‘so the doughnuts tasted of fish.’
Snobbery hung powerfully in the air with the smell of fish doughnuts. ‘The acceptable home address was: name of large house; village it was quite near; county,’ Maxtone Graham observes. ‘It was not done to live at any kind of obscure urban address, such as 24 Whitfield Road, Haslemere.’ The writer Judith Kerr, who had fled the Nazis with her family and ended up boarding at Hayes Court, was asked by two girls: ‘Did your nanny have a Cockney accent? Because we’ve all been discussing it and we’ve decided your vowels aren’t pure.’ Amanda Theunissen, who was at Downe House in Berkshire in the 1950s, was ‘divorced’ by her friends: ‘From that moment on you were an outcast. You were allowed to go around with the one disabled girl and the two foreigners who weren’t princesses.’ Mother Bridget, the headmistress of St Mary’s, Ascot, greeted some new-starters in 1976 by saying: ‘Now, hands up any of you whose house is open to the public.’
The teachers could be extraordinary, mainly in the sense of not being ordinary. They were almost always women. ‘My ears pricked up when Georgina Hammick told me she had had an excellent English teacher at Beaufront called Mr Butts,’ Maxtone Graham notes. ‘It turned out it was not Mr Butts but Miss De Butts.’ Hatherop Castle was headed by a Mrs Fyfe:
‘Was there a Mr Fyfe?’
‘Yes there was,’ said Jane Longrigg, ‘but not in my time. He’d gone out on the lake one day to test the water to see if it was suitable for the girls to skate on. He fell through the ice and was never seen again. All that were found were his hat and his stick.’
The women were made of stronger stuff, like the headmistress of Sherborne School who in the 1940s charged with a ‘hockey stride’ through packed corridors. They went on and on through the decades. Their regimes were warped in their image.
‘Every Saturday night we had ballroom dancing in the great marble hall,’ said Caroline, ‘and the headmistress sat drumming her fingers, with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth and a glass of crème de menthe. We had to dance with her father, who’d been wounded as a sapper in the First World War: either he had his “arms” on, with black gloves, or he couldn’t be bothered to put them on and we just had to dance with the stumps.’
Miss Popham, the headmistress of Cheltenham College, ‘during a Scripture lesson on the First Book of Samuel, went on and on about how the Philistines’ foreskins were cut off and put into sacks. The girls at the receiving end of this long lecture have never forgotten it. Many of them were not even sure what a foreskin was.’
Some of these teachers were unhappy, or unfulfilled. (‘What are you making?’ the girls asked the French teacher at Cranborne Chase, who was bent over her needle. ‘My shroud,’ she replied.) This may have been the reason they were so unpleasant to the children in their care. Or perhaps this was how they found fulfilment. ‘If I was your mother, I’d live abroad,’ the matron at Beaufront said to a girl called Amanda. ‘Jennifer is more a liability than an asset,’ read one report. Catherine Freeman recalled that at the Assumption Convent, then temporarily evacuated to Hereford, Mother Ida ‘habitually woke up an asthmatic friend of mine, Mary Bowen, by laughingly placing a pillow over her face’. Not all nuns were bad news, though. ‘It’s the interface between nunliness and normality that convent girls remember vividly,’ Maxtone Graham writes,
It’s the memory of a nun with her habit hitched up and her rosary beads rattling as she presided over a game of hockey, her ankles flashing in their black tights; or of a nun on a sit-up-and-beg bicycle doing errands round the grounds; or of a nun teaching ballroom dancing on a Saturday evening. Mother Currie at Woldingham ‘taught the cha-cha-cha, the foxtrot and the Gay Gordons, with her robes billowing’.
It should be obvious by now that Terms and Conditions is a delightful book. It is also a very clever one. Maxtone Graham isn’t interested in writing a ‘history’ of girls’ boarding schools: her text floats blissfully free of footnotes and there isn’t a single reference to an academic authority. She hockey-strides through themes and subjects of her choosing, dispatching conclusions like ‘Penrhos College never really got over the glory of being evacuated to Chatsworth.’ Statistics scarcely figure. Occasionally she refers to a piece of documentation, usually an annual or a school history, but her masterstroke is to have relied almost completely on first-hand oral testimony. This produces a wonderful doubling of effect: we are reading about girls’ experiences of boarding school, but in the voices of the adult women who lived them forty, fifty, sixty or seventy years ago. Often the prose puts us in both places at once: at school in recollection, and in the room where Maxtone Graham is sitting with her notepad, listening. Mary-Ann Denham, aged 88, is describing the intense cold at her school, Longstowe Hall. ‘We did all our lessons wrapped in rugs, with mittens on. But I had to have this hand out, in order to write.’ And ‘she held up the crooked and still-red index finger on her right hand to me: it had never recovered from the chilblains.’ We are constantly aware of the nearness of the child to the surface of the adult. Pat Doyne-Ditmas was the daughter of Joan Thomas, who played cricket for England:
‘I was amazed by how hopeless the Cheltenham girls were at batting when I arrived,’ said Pat, ‘tossing the ball about.’ Aged 82 and looking not a day over 60, she stood up in my kitchen and imitated a Cheltenham girl tossing a ball into the air with a bat in an ethereal, ladylike, lightly bouncing way. ‘I’d been well trained and came forward to the ball,’ she demonstrated.
(Italics are important in Maxtone Graham’s work. So much is conveyed by that forward.)
Another benefit of the oral method is that it captures much that an ordinary history would excise as extraneous. Maxtone Graham has a superb ear and reproduces many of the throwaway phrases she has caught in her net:
In a school run by Anglican nuns, Judith was terrified of getting ‘The Call’. ‘We all knew about the previous headmistress, Sister Mary Patricia, who had been young and pretty with a life of fun ahead of her – and The Call came to her like a thunderbolt. She couldn’t escape it. She went twice round the world to try to escape it, but to no avail. To me, that was a fate worse than death.’
We learn that Ann Leslie once overheard her mother saying: ‘I cannot believe I gave birth to such a plain child.’ And that the most aristocratic of her classmates ‘menstruated far earlier than we did because they’d been eating loads of meat since the cradle’. Gillian Darley was ordered to keep jumping in at the deep end of the swimming pool at Benenden, despite not knowing how to swim: ‘I went down, twice. I remember thinking, “Maybe this is it.”’ Tanya Harrod is telling a story about her housemistress confiscating lightbulbs, but Maxtone Graham keeps her aside: ‘That happened when I was sharing a room with a girl called Retina Lonbay – her father was a doctor and had taken a stab at the medical dictionary to find a name for her.’
Maxtone Graham saves her most powerful effect for last. It is only after spending the duration of the book chuckling away in the company of these women, seeing them in double-frame, that we hear them talking about what came next. Which was, for most of them, not very much. The majority of these schools, with some honourable exceptions, weren’t that interested in lessons: ‘You were simply allowed to give any subject up as soon as it became at all hard.’ ‘Hanford was a wonderfully happy school,’ Maxtone Graham accepts, ‘But Amanda got 29 per cent in the history exam and still managed to come third in the class.’ ‘Lizie de la Morinière said she had still never, ever seen a test-tube and had no idea what a Bunsen burner was.’ Girls drifted to the finishing line. Few were encouraged to care about exam results, or to apply for university. A year or two doing some light secretarial work in a socially advantageous setting would normally be sufficient to find a husband. This wasn’t a failure: it was exactly what their parents had hoped for. But many of Maxtone Graham’s women regret it. We are left admiring them – ‘their wiry strength, their straight backs, their lack of showy vanity and their slight severity’ – and feeling sorry for them. ‘What struck me, after I had met all these women who went to girls’ boarding schools in the mid-20th century,’ Maxtone Graham concludes, ‘was this: never had I met such a lot of well-educated undereducated women.’
All the virtues of the Maxtone Graham approach are on display in her new book, about the British school summer holidays, ‘the vast stretch of untimetabled time that begins as soon as you emerge through the gates on a July morning, and goes on until the moment in September when you return, two shoe sizes larger and somehow changed’. It starts with the waning of the summer term and the long-awaited mass breakout – Phoebe Fortescue says that on her last day at St Margaret’s, Bushey, in the 1970s she ‘took off my navy outer-knickers … and waved them out the window. We all did’ (knickers again) – and proceeds from there, through the many different kinds of summer holiday you could have between 1930 and 1980. (The chronological cut-off this time is the ‘arrival of the video game, which gave children prepackaged alternative worlds to consume their hours, and thus lessened the need to invent ones for themselves’.)
For most children, the summer holidays were a long period of what Maxtone Graham calls ‘kinetic stasis’: ‘a situation of staying local, with a vast amount of physical and mental activity built in.’ There might be a holiday in the holidays – of which more in a moment – but mostly you were running in and out of doors. The ideal, Maxtone Graham thinks, was to have two doors open to run in and out of: the front and the back, representing easy freedom and trusting community. ‘Houses were porous, and the gardens behind them were porous, with fences you could climb over into the garden next door. Towns and villages were porous, with children passing in and out of the boundaries.’ Her interviewees tell her repeatedly: ‘Our parents had no idea where we were.’ Children ran in packs. They developed elaborate games that consumed their attention for weeks on end. Or non-elaborate ones: Susan Baldwin and her friends ‘used to spend hours playing a really simple game … putting a lolly stick on the ground and lying down on the roundabout and going round and round really fast and you had to pick it up’. Some of them knocked on doors and asked to ‘take the baby out for a walk’ (‘we always brought the baby back safe,’ Alice Allen says). They played with their siblings or were tortured by them: ‘My brother used to tie me and my sister down to the cattle grid,’ Bolla Denehy reports, ‘– we were spreadeagled down there, waiting for the next oncoming car.’ Mothers were usually on hand, but they were mostly happy to see their children infrequently. One woman who spent her childhood in Putney in the 1970s tells Maxtone Graham that her mother used to put her and her siblings on the number 74 bus, ‘and she told us to go all the way to the end of the route and back. So, Baker Street and home again. That kept us out of her way for the afternoon.’ Some children – especially the lonely ones – disappeared into books instead, or into make-believe worlds.
If some version of kinetic stasis was the norm, Maxtone Graham approaches it from many directions. She has five chapters on ‘the people you were stuck with’ and four on ‘where you happened to be’. We hear people talking about cousins and grandparents, about their summer jobs; we learn what it was like to spend summer in a boarding house, or in a Barnardo’s village. There are tales of domestic drudgery; in Maurice Tonks’s house ‘we had big bits of pig hanging from the ceiling, drying, and I had to shave the fine hair off them.’ There is a section on hop-picking: mothers and children going into the country for a month’s working holiday. ‘We stayed down in Kent for four weeks,’ Phyllis Reed (born in 1932) says, ‘and the money we earned went towards Christmas. And it meant we could afford little luxuries like soap and flannels. We were outside in the sunshine all day, singing, putting the hops in big bins made of sacking.’ Kath Crawley remembers going picking and being thrown into the Yalding River by the Kray twins: ‘They were boisterous kids … You couldn’t tell them apart. They used to say, “it wasn’t me, it was Ronnie.” Or “it wasn’t me, it was Reggie.”’
And then, for some, there were real, actual holidays. Most of them to somewhere else in Britain. Some of them only for a day: a hot rush on a train, mothers and children flocking down to the beach, fathers to the pub, everyone back by bedtime. Some got to go to Butlin’s for a week (which sounds great). People dressed up: ‘I kept hearing,’ Maxtone Graham remarks, ‘about … excited children wearing ties to travel.’ She is very good on travel, especially car journeys, discerning a connection with party hats: ‘the two were related, party hats and forward motion both being effective catalysts for de-inhibition.’ She knows that in a period when families returned to the same holiday spot year after year, ‘a single unprepossessing lay-by could accumulate deeply sentimental associations, through years of stopping for tea from a flask and a leg stretch.’ And that ‘parents had a thing about views. They liked to stop the car and sit there, gazing at the view, perhaps with a car door open.’
Her interviewees describe brown hotels, leaking holiday cottages, caravans, walks and pebbled beaches and fields. Some rapturously, some ruefully. ‘I remember thinking, as we arrived at the stationary caravan at the far end of a field in Cornwall, maybe this will be the year when it’s going to be exciting or exotic,’ one says. If you did venture overseas, overcoming material and psychological barriers (‘Darling, going abroad is vulgar,’ John Mullan’s mother told him), you usually carried Britain with you – tinned. When Eleanor Oldroyd and her family went to France in 1972 they took a can of baked beans for every day of the holiday, 21 in all; her mother fitted them ‘around the wheel arch in the boot, along with the tinned mince and tinned Campbell’s soup’. When Juliet Gardiner went to Le Bourget on a school exchange, she presented her penfriend’s mother with a box of cornflakes. Still, Abroad could be a revelation. Harry Ritchie, from Kirkcaldy, went to Majorca in 1969: ‘Being able to take your clothes off for a holiday, rather than having to put more on: that was wonderful in itself.’
British Summer Time Begins, like its predecessor, is shot through with brilliant phrases and vignettes that have nothing and everything to do with the subject at hand. Ann Lindsay, who grew up in Aberdeenshire in the 1950s, remembers that ‘washed-out pale pink was the colour of my summers – the washed-out pale pink of Elastoplast, and Germolene, and the gravel at Laurencekirk Station, and the bras hanging in the laundry room.’ Caroline Cranbrook describes how, ‘when we came back from staying with our other grandparents in Wales, we found that Granny had eaten our rabbit. This happened two summers running.’ Sue Sabbagh ‘is haunted by the frenzied way her aunt sliced a loaf of bread on a mountain’. It was the 1950s, a ‘freezing summer’s day’, and they had stopped for a picnic at the top of Scafell Pike: her aunt ‘took a loaf of bread out of her knapsack, and some margarine, and she started cutting slices off the loaf against her chest, slicing towards her body so it looked as if the knife was slicing into her breasts.’ Julie Welch’s father, we are told, turned into such a drunk that he once ‘“plumped up” the dog, thinking it was a sofa cushion’. Later in the book we learn that Welch’s mother called him Tim rather than his real name, because ‘she thought the name Arthur a bit downmarket.’ Which might explain things.
Where the new book differs from Terms and Conditions is in its greater social range and variety of setting. Rather unfairly, this praiseworthy effort at expansion invites some criticism of Maxtone Graham’s methods. Once we are outside the tightly circumscribed world of the girls’ boarding school, it’s hard not to notice how frequently alumni of these establishments still pop up, and some of Maxtone Graham’s summative statements – ‘That was the problem with second homes in Britain’; ‘No wonder au pairs came into fashion’ – jar. (Contrast with: ‘The whole experience of having to see, and indeed revisit, one’s own and one’s family’s excrement was a remarkably common theme.’) Only former miners have their speech reproduced in dialect – we get ‘on’t’s but not ‘orff’s. It seems a shame not to have more about snogging and sex. The sheer number of glanced at social trends draws attention to the way Maxtone Graham’s fleetfootedness comes at the cost of analysis, of any effort to make connections to a historiography to which she is making so admirable a contribution.
I can’t convince myself that any of this matters very much. Indeed, in excitable moments, I wonder whether Maxtone Graham has founded a new school of historical writing. I suppose for most of us, though not for Old Girls, the experience of reading Terms and Conditions is one of appalled and entertained spectatorship: it is a hermetic world into which we have been given insight. The experience of reading British Summer Time Begins, on the other hand, can only be open access. It doesn’t need references, or connections with the historiography, because Maxtone Graham is aware that its success depends on a process of recognition, hers and the reader’s, every story and anecdote having an echo in another person’s life. It’s why she can get away with sentences like ‘It was rare for your bike to fit you’ and ‘There was always one damaged shuttlecock that didn’t fly properly and made a muffled thud.’ I nodded throughout this book: at Simon Winder’s memory of spending the summer ‘reading at funny angles’; at the discussion of roadside rituals (we cheered every time we crossed the border into Scotland en route to our annual caravan holiday); at the short disquisition on the merits of Subbuteo (we played with my father’s 1960s set). I remembered going in and out of the open back door into my house, and weeks spent running with my brother and our friends in the network of alleys it backed onto. And if it wasn’t my memory, it was someone else’s. Maxtone Graham mentions the surprising uses prams were put to long after they had exhausted their primary use: one woman (born in 1943), remembers pushing her ailing aunt in one during a hop-picking month. This was no surprise to me, because my grandmother was taken to hospital in a pram when she went into labour, probably around the same time.
All this, despite the fact that I was born nearly a decade after Maxtone Graham’s end-date of 1980 and was an enthusiastic participant in the Age of the PlayStation. If ordinary historical time is a river flowing on, it is tempting to see childhood as more like one of those huge snowballs, rolled and rolled until it agglomerates into a compact mass, streaked with mud and bits of grass and surviving when everything else has melted away. Because it is only ever being lived by children (who by nature are powerless and don’t know any better) and governed by adults (who mainly have their own experiences to go on), and is subject to persistent structural conditions (like the school holidays), it is slower and harder to change, carries more of the past in it. If, as Maxtone Graham regretfully believes, it has altered radically in the last forty years, then I suspect the main culprit will prove not to be the video-game console, but the smartphone. Only time will tell. TikTok.
It would be easy to dismiss Maxtone Graham’s view of childhood as nostalgic. She admits that she ‘tried to dig up clods of melancholy’ when asking people about their summers, but found that ‘the overriding memory was of a sort of easy, unselfconscious, cotton-wearing happiness’. Her boarding school girls are the heroes of their own lives. And yet the fundamental perception of her books, I think, is that childhood is a state of abandonment. It might be more obvious in some circumstances, when, for example,
with the best of intentions, a girls’ country boarding school could tip over from just about adequate to utterly, comically, tragically hopeless. A girl could find herself at such a place, stranded, miles from anywhere, with neither of her parents remotely interested in hearing any bad news. The daughter just had to go there, and go there again for another term, and another, as things got progressively worse.
But all of us are stuck with the people we’re stuck with, with the time and circumstances we’re born into, the houses and streets and schools we find ourselves occupying, the places we’re taken. ‘Children were brought up on the theory “you’ll like it when you get there”,’ Maxtone Graham writes. ‘Once they did get there and still didn’t like it, it was too late.’ Children can’t even help being posh. Nor can they help being British. Maxtone Graham’s books about children are almost accidentally books about Britain (and, for once, they really are about Britain, not just England), but only almost. The mirror she holds up reveals a strange place, but not an unrecognisable one. The landscape of our childhood is still a country: visiting, we may realise how little we’ve grown out of it.